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New Left Review I/113-114, January-April 1979

Norman Geras

Literature of Revolution

Are we sensible enough of all the sources of our own literary heritage? The question is suggested to me by some of the writings of the young Trotsky. Upon reading them, it is quickly evident, even from the accessible fraction of a much larger output belonging to the years before the October Revolution, that here is one rich source. Where is its wealth appreciated? Naturally, anyone in the least familiar with Trotsky’s life’s work will know that within his wide range of concerns the literary-artistic occupied a prominent place, as they will know also the power and quality of his best writing. His biographer, in a work whose own towering literary achievement is undiminished by the passage of a decade and a half since its completion, gives due space and attention to these facets of Trotsky’s personality. Others besides Isaac Deutscher have commented on the excellence of his prose. [1] See Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism, London 1976, p. 100. And yet such is the imaginative force of some parts of Trotsky’s early work, and so compelling their narrative drive, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that, as a contribution to revolutionary literature, they have not yet been properly valued. This appears to be a paradox, so let us explore it. I am not now speaking about the strictly scientific value of these writings, about their strengths and deficiencies as political theory or historical analysis (or, for that matter, literary criticism), although even in this respect many things still need to be spoken. Nor is it a matter of focusing, narrowly, on the nature of Trotsky’s prose style, his manner of construction or exposition. The question as to what is literature may be a particularly thorny one but I mean simply to draw attention to the way in which, in some basic sense at least, the techniques and inspirations of creative literature inform the productions of the young Trotsky in his activities as historian and journalist, revolutionary theoretician and polemicist. Theoretical analysis, historical narrative or political characterization may be illuminated by a sudden, compressed image. The language of Marxist objectivity (not, of course, the same thing as neutrality) is doubled by the vivid recreation of some lived experience, the subjectivity, so to speak, of that objectivity. Global historical forces in movement are set off against a small detail of individual humour or tragedy. A personal portrait is given depth by the invocation of impersonal structures. The results are usually effective and sometimes stunning: for each strained or misplaced metaphor, each occurrence of some exaggerated literary flourish—for these there sometimes are—there is many another passage of fine and whole conviction. One result, in particular, is that the book 1905, as well as being a political text of capital importance, is a great book of the revolutionary experience of that year. Of lesser scope and maturity than Trotsky’s subsequent History of the Russian Revolution, dwarfed by the massive stature of that work, it nevertheless displays many of the same qualities, and it does for 1905 some of the things that the History does for 1917, proffering, to be sure, a theory of the unfolding events, sketching the outlines of a history of them but, over and above this, communicating an acute sense of them.

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Norman Geras, ‘Literature of Revolution’, NLR I/113-114: £3

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